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Transport to train station: 8 AM. What?!? No! This can’t be! But alas, that was indeed the schedule.
No Sunday in the Park with George…. and Jeff and Michael and Mary.
As I’d posted before our trip, I had hoped we’d be able to spend a little of our Sunday morning on the l’Île de la Grande Jatte– where Georges Seurat spent much time sketching and painting. I guess it was just an art/theatre geek thing. I’d hoped we wouldn’t have been leaving Paris before noon– 10 am at the very earliest. I guess that moment just wasn’t meant to be. Maybe next trip. (You hear that George and Mary?)
The night before, Michael and I somehow managed to pack our large and carry on suitcases inside each other so they would go on the truck ahead of us to the ship. (They told us we could send one bag ahead.) This way we didn’t have to lug a big suitcase on the train.
Everything actually worked out perfectly. We got up, had breakfast, and then it was time to head to the train station. No waiting around, killing time.
We arrived at the Paris station, Gare de Lyon, with plenty of time to look around the beautiful, building before boarding the high speed TGV train to Avignon.
It was hard to believe that after the whirlwind adventure we’d had so far– the ‘main event‘ was still ahead! Broadway On the Rhone! This would be our fourth cruise with Playbill Travel but our first-ever river cruise.
We arrived in the south of France (Avignon) in just under three hours. Even though there wasn’t a lot of unique scenery to speak of, it was a relaxed, comfortable trip.
We were warmly greeted and welcomed aboard the S.S. Catherine by the crew and encouraged to visit the buffet. The rooms wouldn’t be ready for a couple hours so we ate and explored. We saw a number of people had arrived that hadn’t gone to Paris first– so we said our hellos and ended up camping out on the top deck.
It was empty up there– a beautiful sunny day and little hot. We guessed most were choosing to stay inside where it was cooler.
After a bit, we saw people coming up the stairs. It was none other than Grammy and Emmy Award winner, John McDaniel and his niece! We made introductions, had a nice conversation and then they were off to explore around the ship some more.
A crew member came around and told us we could check in and go to our rooms but our bags might not be there until later. When they arrived, we had enough time to unpack and take a short nap before the security/excursion briefing in the lounge.
The ship set sail, unceremoniously, while the meeting was going on. That was followed by cocktails on the upper deck and the introduction of our cruise’s entertainment: Liz Callaway, Paulo Szot, James Barbour, and Rebecca Luker; with music director, John McDaniel.
Our ship, the S.S. Catherine, is a small ship, specifically suited for river cruises. It only accommodates 159 guests and 57 staff in 6 suites and 74 staterooms. It has to be short enough to fit under the many low bridges. We would also be passing through 17 locks on the Rhone river from Avignon to Lyon.
The ship has most of the amenities of a larger ship, just scaled down. There’s one large dining room (most ships have three or more) and a big lounge that can hold everyone at one time. There’s also a smaller bar with a ‘pool’ that would be better described as a large hot tub. The only things missing are a gift shop and casino.
One of the first things I noticed, after the Murano chandelier in the lobby, was the beautiful modern art lining all the hallways. Tasteful and appropriate.
At 7 pm we met our friends for an enjoyable dinner and then retired early. I always feel exhausted on travel days, I’m not sure why. Looking forward to a new adventure on the day ahead!
Travel Date: May 21, 2017 Sunday (Day 9)
If you had only one day to explore one of the world’s most famous cities– how would you approach it? Would you try to see all the important landmarks? Take a tour? Explore on you own?
There’s obviously no real right or wrong way to do it. You just have to go with your gut instincts.
Today was our one full day to discover Paris. Actually, we only had eight hours before a champagne river cruise on the Seine– the kick off for our Playbill Broadway cruise which officially launches tomorrow from Avignon. We had dinner reservations booked immediately following, so we had to make the most of the day.
I had ideas of where I wanted to go– but was determined I wasn’t going to get bogged down (and in a rush) with a packed itinerary. I just wanted to experience Paris and with few strings– let it happen organically.
At breakfast, we FINALLY got to see our friends, George and Mary. They are the easiest couple to travel with– and so much fun!
Michael was feeling a little under the weather, so when Mary and George said they’d accompany me on the first leg of the journey– he chose to stay at the hotel and rest.
So we headed out, uphill, in the direction of four places I’d included on the master list of places I’d like to see.
Montmartre. Montmarte was the trendy neighborhood of days gone by. Writers and artists such as Hemmingway, Piccaso, and Van Gogh once spent their days here. Though considered touristy today, I found the area quite charming and peaceful. Corner parks, tree-lined streets, cafes, street vendors– all culminate in a rather exciting, yet tranquil experience. I wanted to see the iconic windmill of Moulin Rouge, the I Love You Wall, and Sacre Coeur— in addition to just soaking in the atmosphere of Montmartre.
The I Love You Wall is the new Love Locks (more on this later) of Paris. Le mur des je t’aime is where love comes together in every language. Artist Frédéric Baron with the help of Claire Kito (oriental calligrapher) created the 612 tile mural described as “a link, a place of reconciliation, a mirror which reflects an image of love and peace.”
The phrase “I love you” is written 311 times in 250 languages with splashes of red representing parts of a broken heart.
You can visit the wall (free) at Butte Montmartre, Place des Abbesses, in the Square Jehan Rictus, Paris.
Near that square is Eglise Saint John de Montmartre. So many churches in Europe (unlike the U.S.) are open for prayer and visitation, all day, 7 days a week. We couldn’t resist stopping and admiring its architecture.
As we strolled through the streets, I thought we might view the Basilica of Sacre Coeur. We were already too close to it to find an unobstructed view. We came across a steep staircase– and with only a little convincing, George and Mary agreed to make the climb. This led to two more steep climbs that took us directly to the base of Sacre Coeur. There is an incredible overlook here with an expansive park below.
The overlook was the most crowded spot we visited in Montmartre, but that wasn’t a drawback– there was a carnival like atmosphere in the air.
George and Mary had been there before but it had been 30 years ago. Both agreed that it was worth the climb to experience it again. I was just happy to be there with them. Michael would have loved this spot too– but not the climb!
We then began the steep descent, heading back in the direction of our hotel, taking different streets, continuing to explore as we went. It was the perfect way to spent part of a day in Paris.
When we got back to the hotel, I only had time to freshen up, get Michael and then we headed back out in the direction of the River Seine and the Île de la Cité. One of two remaining natural islands within the city of Paris.
We passed the Louvre and reached Île de la Cité and spent some time at Notre Dame de Paris. Featuring French Gothic architecture, it was completed by 1345, survived damage during the French Revolution, and received its first major restoration in 1845.
It’s a beautiful cathedral. Even though there are usually long lines of visitors waiting to get in, they move very quickly. Visiting is free, although there is a charge if you want to climb the narrow stairs to the bell tower. (Which we didn’t do.)
My one regret– in our effort to keep moving, was that I forgot to find Paris Point Zero. It is the marker that supposedly designates the exact center of Paris and France. It is the point from which all distances in France (from Paris) are measured.
From there, we walked along the River Seine until we reached the Square du Vert-Galant and Pont Neuf bridge. The square is a park honoring Henry IV of France. The Pont Neuf bridge is the oldest surviving bridge across the Seine.
You may have heard of Love Locks on the Pont des Arts bridge. The affixing the locks to the bridge was used to symbolize love. In just five years the bridge was covered in locks. Officials feared for the weight and damage they were causing the bridge. They were removed– an estimated million padlocks, in 2015. Well, they are reappearing on other bridges, including Pont Neuf.
Reaching the bridge quicker than we expected, we had some time before the rest of the group would arrive for the Playbill Champagne River Cruise. We walked around the point of the island and enjoyed the views from Pont Neuf– just soaking up the atmosphere.
We met our friends at the boat launch and prepared for a lovely cruise on the river. The private event was organized by Playbill Travel.
Janet and Ken arrived, having been delayed a day by a flight cancellation, and we were all thrilled to be reunited.
After we got off the boat, we had a little time before our dinner reservations to wander Pont Neuf. We also had a birthday surprise for Janet. There was a quaint little vintage jewelry store (Jeanne Danjou et Rousselet) on the island where we had a gift– wrapped and waiting for her. Janet loved the surprise.
We had found the store online (back at home) and picked out a vintage necklace, as a gift from all of us– that they graciously agreed to hold for us to pick up in person. Michael and Mary went in the store with Janet while George, Ken and I watched from outside the shop window. They even resized it for her on the spot.
Our restaurant was just around the corner, on a square where a number of people were playing Boules (Bocce in Italy). We arrived promptly at 7 pm at the charming and historic, Restaurant Paul for dinner. The food and the service was great– a perfect birthday celebration for Janet.
After dinner, we caught the sun setting on the Seine. A stunning combination of color and light playing off the water and bridges as day turned to night.
We got back to the hotel and packed so we’d be ready for our early morning transport to the train to Avignon.
I added at least another 9 miles walking today. A pretty fulfilling experience. My own unique introduction to Paris, the City of Lights.
Travel Date: May 20, 2017 Saturday (Day 8)
We were really looking forward to visiting Versailles. We got our tickets in advance and had made plans with our friends, Laura and Cass to spend at least half the day there. Most days the gardens of Versailles are free– except when they have the Musical Fountains Show or Musical Gardens as it is called. Today was one of those days.
Our tickets included the Palace, Grand Trianon, Petite Trianon and Marie Antoinette Estate, in addition to the the special garden show. There are a variety of ticketing options, including special tours (only a few are in English) of portions of the Palace that general ticket holders don’t get to see. We did not add any additional tours and I can assure you that there is plenty to overwhelm your senses without them.
The grounds of Versailles covers over two thousand acres of which 213 acres are formal gardens. What you see when you visit, particularly in the Palace itself, is pretty astounding. Especially when you consider it began as a hunting lodge! Louis XIV, also known as the Sun King, had an unwavering determination and vision to create what Versailles was to become. He chose the sun as his emblem because of its association to Apollo– and it was the symbol of peace and art.
The Château de Versailles and the gardens were designated as one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1979.
Putting this post together was a little difficult with so much to cover: which photographs to use, how much history/facts to include, and of course, the experience itself. (I’ll be posting more photos of Versailles in a separate blog post, immediately following this one.)
If you are interested in the history of Versailles and Louis XIV, and I promise you, it is really fascinating — I encourage you to explore the subjects online. I’ll try and keep my inclusions here- brief; and focus more on our experience.
The four of us took a taxi to Versailles, arriving about a half hour before the Palace opened. This gave us plenty of time for pictures of the magnificent exterior. Then, while Michael and Laura waited in line, Cass and I took turns running back to take a few pictures in the gardens (The Orangerie) before it had a chance to get crowded.
The Palace. There aren’t enough adjectives to describe the beauty and grandeur of the Palace. Versailles, rightfully, is on most top ten lists of the most beautiful palaces in the world.
The effort made to maintain and restore the Palace is some of the best I’ve seen in our travels. In so many places we’ve visited, you find faux finishing used to repair, restore or represent what had been there originally. I didn’t notice any of that here.
Every room is dripping in its uniquely-styled opulence. Ceiling mural, elaborate moldings, wall and ceiling medallions, gold leaf everywhere– it doesn’t stop. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.
The palace is absolutely stunning! I stepped outside to wait for the others to finish in the Battles Gallery and saw the crowds of people lining up to enter. It made me really glad we arrived early.
While waiting, I noticed the military presence outside the Palace. Actually, it was the most visible of our entire trip.
When the others came outside, we decided to head out to the gardens. Cass suggested we establish a time and meeting place in case we split up but the consensus was it wasn’t necessary at this point.
The Gardens. There are more than 50 fountains and water features in Versailles. My biggest disappointment was the fountains aren’t continuously working. Being that is was a Musical Fountains Show or Musical Gardens day, I expected to see more flowing water. We never did see any of the larger, world-renowned fountains working.
We were told different fountains come on briefly, at different times, throughout the day. You either had to wait by a fountain, or hope to pass one that was working. Since they charge more money for this, I would have thought there would be a schedule and/or a map assisting you in enjoying them. This wasn’t the case. There are maps of Versailles but no indication when the individual fountains would be running.
As we wound our way through the garden maze, we heard music ahead. Tucked in a secluded section, we found a modern water show in progress. This was nice, but I would have rather seen the many older fountains working.
The views of the garden are breathtaking. There is something new to see around every turn– statues, alcoves, private garden enclaves– they never end. There are large map boards strategically placed throughout, to help you find your way around.
After some wandering, we made our way to the Grand Canal and the Apollo Fountain.
Walking from the Palace to the Grand Trianon, Petit Trianon and Marie Antoinette Estate covers about two miles- one way. There is a tram (for a fee) that can transport you as well. We didn’t discover the tram until we were halfway through the gardens, along the canal– and decided we’d walk the rest of the way to the Grand Trianon– knowing we’d probably take the tram back to the palace after we’d seen the other features of Versailles.
Grand Trianon. We reached the Grand Trianon, divided in two sections by a peristyle (breezeway). Louis XIV had this built as a retreat. His getaway from the nearby palace.
Getting Lost. Taking my last picture, I exited the final room of the Grand Trianon, to look for Michael who had been ahead of me. Cass and Laura were just a room or two behind us in the chateau. I got outside– no Michael. I went back in, getting stopped by a guard– and was told I had to wait there. I saw Cass and Laura coming though – but no Michael.
We got outside and just waited. Where was he?
WWMD? What would Michael DO?
Not disappear. But he had.
To make a long story short(er)… we waited… worried… went ahead… backtracked– about three hours went by before we found his whereabouts. We wouldn’t see him again until we got back to the hotel.
Going on through the park, we passed several small buildings and more sculpted gardens before reaching the Petit Trianon.
A guide pointed us in the direction of the Marie Antoinette Estate, more like its own little village. He neglected to tell us that the main house was under renovation. It was completely covered up, in fact.
We looked at a few of the small cottages and then decided to backtrack, hoping to find Michael along the way.
When we got back to the Grand Trianon, we discovered the tram stop and decided to take it back to the Palace. Just as we got on, there was a brief downpour– with some hail. Luckily, it had stopped by the time we reached the main entrance. Laura had cell service, so we called the hotel and left messages, hoping to find Michael, or at least to let him know we were on the way back.
Just as we were getting in a taxi, Michael responded. He had just gotten back to the hotel. (It turns out he had been waiting by an exit at the Grand Trianon that we didn’t even know existed. Then he went on his own adventure, searching for us as we were searching for him.) He was safe, we were safe. A sigh of relief.
On the way back to the hotel, we had some terrific views of the Eiffel Tower. If we’d been any closer, it would have been hard to get all of it in a picture.
Back at the hotel, Laura and Cass went up to their room and Michael came down and met me out front. We recounted our search efforts, vowed to never let that happen again– and then Michael informed me that the day’s drama wasn’t over yet.
Our friend Janet had emailed Michael to let us know that her flight from the U.S. had been cancelled. She and her son, Ken wouldn’t be arriving until the next day. We’d already prepaid for dinner and a show so we had to find someone to take their place.
We found our friends, Marilyn and Rita, who had experienced their own misadventure that day– and were thrilled to join us.
Paradis Latin. All of us met in the lobby (including Laura and Cass) and then got a car to Paradis Latin. Like Moulin Rouge, this was one of several venues catering primarily to tourists. We all had a really nice time. Dinner was very good and the show was pretty much what we expected. Topless showgirls and shirtless men, a comedian, an aerialist– song and dance — including the Can-Can. An enjoyable evening, though by our standards, a bit overpriced.
We’d had quite a day and walked over ten miles! In spite of the drama, it had been a pretty fulfilling adventure.
AND— we had another great travel story to tell. Let’s just hope it’s the last one of its kind.
Travel Date: May 19, 2017 (Day 7)
Our five days in London had flown by. Still feeling the exhilaration from yesterday’s incredible adventure– we got up, packed, and prepared for the next leg of our journey. We had coffee outside the lobby of St. Pancras, as had become our morning routine, enjoying the bright morning sun and going over our schedule.
After breakfast, I walked the grand staircase, one last time– just relishing the beauty of it. I love St. Pancras. It’s hard to fathom that it barely escaped demolition and is now fully restored.
As guests in the historic part of the hotel, we were entitled to VIP service for the Eurostar to Paris at the adjoining St. Pancras International Railway Station. We were met in the lobby and escorted to the station, through customs/immigration– all the way to boarding and stowing our luggage on the train. It couldn’t have been easier.
Traveling Europe by high speed train is a fast, convenient and inexpensive alternative to air travel. From London to Paris took us two hours and twenty-two minutes. From St. Pancras International, the Eurostar took us through the Channel Tunnel and across the French countryside before arriving at Paris Gare du Nord. The distance is nearly 3oo miles. (By car the trip takes over six hours.)
I’d like to give you a highly romanticized version — riding the rails. Truthfully, from the scenery outside my window, it could have been a train ride anywhere in the world.
The one thing I did notice was for a good portion of the trip, we’d pass a church steeple seeming to stick up out of the fields every few miles. I saw dozens of these and they all looked similar.
Don’t get me wrong– some of the scenery was beautiful– it’s just not unique. I say this for anyone considering the train option purely in hopes of seeing a different world of small villages, farms and sights unique to France.
None of that really mattered to us though– because we were on our way to a new city. We’d be experiencing Paris for the first time.
We arrived at Paris Gare du Nord and found our driver waiting for us at the end of the track. He escorted us out of the station and drove us to our hotel. Our stay at Hotel Scribe had been arranged through Judy Perl Worldwide Travel that handles the bookings for Playbill Travel. We arrived a day earlier than many of the people going on the Broadway on the Rhone cruise, who were also doing the pre-cruise stay in Paris.
After checking with the desk, we had a little time before our room would be ready, so we went for a walk through the neighborhood– part of the 9th arrondissement. Just down the block from our hotel was the Palais Garnier. It’s consider one of, if not the most famous opera house in the world.
The Palais Garnier is the setting and inspiration for Gaston Leroux’s novel, The Phantom of the Opera, adapted into many movies and of course, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s popular stage musical.
After a pleasant walk, we returned to the hotel and got settled in. We checked the weather and were trying to decide if we should chance the threat of rain. A storm was rolling in and decided not to risk it.
We heard from our friends, Laura and Cass and met them down in the lobby. After a little catching up, we decided to go to dinner at a cafe/brasserie recommended by the front desk. They got us a reservation and we headed there, just across the street. It was pouring rain!
The restaurant was packed. Capucine Cafe is a lovely little place with great food and plenty of atmosphere. We were seated by the window on the second floor–with a nice view, as the rain continued to flood the street below.
We had a great time catching up, with our conversation bouncing from topic to topic. Then before heading back to the hotel, we planned our big day ahead. Tomorrow the four of us were heading to Versailles.
Little did we know– it would be a much bigger adventure than we were expecting!
Travel Date: May 18, 2017 (Day Six)
What an adventure!
It’s hard to believe it’s over. A year of planning, researching, and of course, the hardest part– counting down the days. Before you know it– it’s come and gone.
Four days after returning home and I’m a bit jet lagged, my senses are still a little overwhelmed; but most of all, I’m happily content with having completed another whirlwind adventure.
In nineteen days, Michael and I managed to visit 16 cities in 3 countries, halfway around the world. We walked over 124 miles, sailed some of Europe’s most famous rivers, experienced the speed of the EuroRail and saw first hand, many historical landmarks that many Americans have only read about in books.
I thought I’d lead off my day-to-day blogging of our adventure with a brief overview.
What can you expect to glean from our adventures? Aside from our personal impressions of the experience itself– I might be able to dispel some of the myths, mysteries and misconceptions about travel and the places we visited.
What do Europeans think of America? Are Parisians really rude? How easy is it to get around a foreign city? How different is the European culture from that in America? What’s different about a river cruise compared with an ocean excursion? Are travel and sightseeing difficult abroad?
I invite you to join us as we explore London, Paris, Amsterdam and many places in between.
Tours and exploring on our own… food and wine… museums and parks… transportation… the locals… so much to see and do.
You might pick up some travel tips or benefit from our experiences. You might enjoy just going along for the ride. Curious?
Travel with us.
It’s hard to believe this day is finally here! We started planning this trip in February 2016 when Playbill Travel announced their inaugural river cruise. This will be our first as well, while it’s our fourth vacation built around a Playbill Broadway Cruise. This ship, Uniworld’s S.S. Catherine, holds about half the passengers of the Broadway at Sea cruises from the past few years. This cruise actually sold out before it could go on sale to the public.
We weighed some options and building around the cruise, we came up with a pretty exciting trip. Nineteen days in Europe, start to finish. We start with five days in London, then take the Eurostar train to Paris for three days, followed by the Broadway on the Rhone River Cruise and finally three days in Amsterdam before flying home.
So here’s a quick preview of our trip:
Having just visited last September, we saw many of the historical places of interest and found how easy it was to get around using the Tube. This time we’re seeing nine shows (yes, nine shows in 5 days) in the West End. We’re staying at the incredibly beautiful, St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel again which connects directly to the Eurostar at St. Pancras International. When we’re not in the theatre, we hope to visit a few of the museums and places we didn’t have time to get to on our last trip.
Our first time. So many things we’d like to see and do– but we’re keeping our options open so we can focus on enjoying the ambience of the city. Hotel Scribe will be our home base for a few days. We’re definitely making a trip to Versailles, must see the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, we’re seeing the show at Paradis Latin and have a short champagne cruise through Paris on the Seine. I’m really hoping to spend time in the Montmartre district and make a quick visit to the island of Grand Jatte. We’ll probably skip the museums this time and have to plan a longer stay in the future to experience more of what Paris has to offer.
Broadway on the Rhone
Sponsored by Playbill Travel, this Rhone river cruise starts in the south of France and visits: Avignon, Arles, Tarascon, Viviers, Tournon/Tain L’Hermitage, Macon and Lyon. World renowned sommelier Jean-Luc le Du will be on board, sharing his love and knowledge of the wines, cheese and chocolates of the region. Evenings will feature entertainment by Broadway veterans Rebecca Luker, Paulo Szot, Liz Callaway and James Barbour, accompanied by Grammy and Emmy Award winning Music Director, John McDaniel.
At the top of my bucket list of places to visit has always been the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. We’ve already booked our tickets. We also booked a half day trip to Zaanse Schans, Voldendam and Marken in the Dutch countryside. Windmills anyone? There are also several museums and a canal cruise we hope to enjoy, not to mention the necessary stroll through the infamous red light district, known around the world. I think we’re too late for tulips but you never know!
I’ll be posting what I can, when I can on social media as well as blog posts of our daily activities– though they may be posted later, depending on time and Internet availability. I hope some of you will follow along– join us on our journey!